For the Birds Radio Program: Birds of Washington, D.C.

Original Air Date: Oct. 28, 1988

Laura Erickson is going to be taking a trip to Washington
D.C. to find out if birds can survive in our nation’s capital.

Duration: 3′28″


(Recording of a Carolina Chickadee)

I’m going to Washington D.C. in a couple of weeks, and in preparation, I’m figuring out what birds I can plan to see there. I know all about the old coots and the gullible young quails, but I’m hoping more for the genuine article. There must be at least a few real birds there—after all, Alger Hiss got in big trouble for boasting to Whittaker Chambers about a Prothonotary Warbler he saw along the Potomac—the bird provided the one piece of evidence that connected Hiss to Chambers. If I manage to see an out-of-season Prothonotary Warbler along the Potomac during this trip, I’ll be boasting about it for months to every stranger I meet, but I trust that won’t be held against me in a court of law.

Theodore Roosevelt used to keep track of the birds on the White House grounds—at one point he compiled a list of 57, and added about three dozen other birds that he had seen in the Washington area. So there’s at least some hope that while we’re out traipsing through the urban jungle we’ll spot a few birds.

Black-capped Chickadees won’t be among them for sure. Except in the mountains, the only chickadee found in the southeast is the Carolina Chickadee. The Carolina Chickadee is over an inch smaller than our Black-cap, but otherwise is very difficult to distinguish except by call. The Carolina Chickadee’s chickadee-dee-dee call is higher and more rapid than the Black-cap’s:

(Recording of a Carolina Chickadee)

The songs of the two species are different too. The Black-capped Chickadee has a two or three-noted whistle:

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee song)

While the Carolina Chickadee sings a different, four-noted tune:

(Recording of a Carolina Chickadee)

In spite of its name, neither of the Carolina states currently has the Carolina Chickadee as its state bird. North Carolina did for a while, until the state legislators realized that this bird is colloquially known by the English name, Tomtit. When others jeered them as the Tomtit state, they quickly changed their state symbol to the cardinal, apparently hoping that their new state bird’s bright colors would distract attention from their own red faces. But even a silly nickname like Tomtit can’t diminish the sweet song of this bird.

(Recording of a Carolina Chickadee)

A close relative of the Carolina Chickadee that I miss up here in the Northland is the Tufted Titmouse. If I had to choose, I’d take a view of titmouse over a panda, but I sincerely hope I won’t have to make the choice. Tufted Titmice look like chickadees from the waist on down, but instead of the familiar black cap and bib and white cheeks, the Tufted Titmouse has a grey crest like a jay’s and big, beady black eyes in the light gray face. Titmice have a cheerful song which I used to hear all the time in the beech maple forests of Lansing when I was at Michigan State.

(Recording of a Tufted Titmouse)

Naturally I expect to see cardinals, which I grew up with in Chicago and miss up here in the Northland. But after a few days there I’ll sure be glad to get back to civilized society again, and back to our own sweet birds.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”